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Series Preview: Mariners (42-43) at Astros (49-38)

The Mariners wrap up the first half of the season with a big four-game series in Houston.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Recency bias is rough– if you’d told me last week that the M’s would win the Giants series two games to three, I’d have been pleased. The two wins were exciting, and the Mariners outscored the Giants 12-7. However, since the third game was the loss (and an anemic one), I find myself discouraged.

The Astros were last at T-Mobile Park in early May, and the Mariners took two of three games in that series. There was a seven-run eighth inning comeback, runs scored on errors and balks, and a 454-foot Julio home run. This weekend’s four-game series in Houston is the teams’ final series before the All-Star Break and the festivities in Seattle. Many of the Mariners will get a lengthy rest, with the team reuniting at home on July 14th against the Tigers. Luis Castillo, Julio Rodríguez, and George Kirby will represent the team at the All-Star Game (and Julio in the Home Run Derby) next week.

At a Glance

Mariners Astros
Mariners Astros
Game 1 Thursday, July 6 | 5:10 pm
RHP George Kirby RHP Ronel Blanco
55% 45%
Game 2 Friday, July 7 | 5:10 pm
RHP Luis Castillo RHP Hunter Brown
47% 53%
Game 3 Saturday, July 8 | 4:15 pm
RHP Bryan Woo LHP Framber Valdez
39% 61%
Game 4 Sunday, July 9 | 11:10 am
RHP Logan Gilbert RHP Brandon Bielak
51% 49%
*Game odds courtesy of FanGraphs

Team Overview

Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Overview Astros Mariners Edge
Batting (wRC+) 104 (5th in AL) 100 (8th in AL) Astros
Fielding (OAA) 7 (4th) 8 (3rd) Mariners
Starting Pitching (FIP-) 100 (6th) 91 (3rd) Mariners
Bullpen (FIP-) 87 (3rd) 89 (4th) Astros

The Astros are staging a comeback in the AL West; they’d been hovering about two games back of the Rangers for the first few months of the year, but fell to five games back in mid-June. With a hot two weeks and a series win against Texas, they’re back to two games below the division lead, and currently hold a four-game win streak (three of four against the Rangers last weekend and a sweep of the Rockies Tuesday/Wednesday). It’s been a disappointing year for the Astros compared to their last decade of seasons, with the team sitting in tenth place in MLB in most offensive categories, fifth in pitching fWAR, and with no batters in the top 25 in baseball. This spurs trade prognostication and a sense that action is necessary to bolster the team mid-season. I don’t disagree, but it sure is frustrating to realize that some fanbases assume that necessary action… might actually be taken.

Houston’s offense has heated up since the Mariners faced them in May (they were 18th in fWAR at the time, compared to their current 10th). Injuries continue to fragment the lineup: Yordan Álvarez has been inconsistently healthy, and will miss this series due to a strained oblique for which his rehab won’t begin until later this month. Jose Altuve also suffered a oblique strain in a pre-game incident on Tuesday and it sounds like the Astros won’t try and rush him back ahead of the break next week. Michael Brantley still hasn’t returned to major league play after missing half of last season and all of this with a shoulder injury– he was on a rehab assignment in May, but experienced a setback. All this on top of three members of the rotation out of commission, two of whom will not play this year (Luis García and Lance McCullers Jr.), the other of whom may return at the end of this month (José Urquidy).

Astros Lineup

Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+
Player Position Bats PA K% BB% ISO wRC+
Mauricio Dubón 2B R 284 12.0% 3.5% 0.125 102
Alex Bregman 3B R 385 12.5% 13.0% 0.154 109
Kyle Tucker RF L 359 13.1% 10.6% 0.186 133
José Abreu 1B R 351 23.1% 6.3% 0.112 79
Yainer Diaz DH R 174 19.5% 2.3% 0.248 113
Corey Julks LF R 246 24.4% 6.5% 0.127 104
Jeremy Peña SS R 325 22.8% 5.2% 0.161 98
Chas McCormick CF R 184 26.1% 8.7% 0.215 129
Martín Maldonado C R 222 31.1% 8.6% 0.109 51

The headliner of the current Astros lineup is definitively right fielder Kyle Tucker. Tucker leads the team in nearly every offensive category, with 2.3 fWAR, 134 wRC+, 13 home runs, 14 stolen bases, and just a 12.7% strikeout rate. In our last Astros series preview, Kate called it “his Kyle Tucker Thing of being quietly All-Star-Adjacent but somehow never a huge star,” but his fates have changed as Tucker has been named as a replacement on the American League All-Star team. When not injured, Yordan Álvarez is being his pesky self, accumulating 2.3 fWAR, 17 home runs, and a 167 wRC+ in only 57 games (compared to Tucker’s 84). Other players hitting above league average include outfielder Chas McCormick, who has a 129 wRC+ in an even smaller sample size of 47 games. José Altuve’s wRC+ is 138, but he has only played in 32 games this year. He missed the start of the season with a thumb fracture sustained during the World Baseball Classic, and will likely miss games for the series against Seattle as well, as he undergoes further evaluation for oblique discomfort. The rest of the Astros lineup hovers around replacement level, including last year’s lauded rookie Jeremy Peña.

The worst offensive numbers in the lineup belong to first baseman José Abreu, with 70 wRC, and primary catcher Martín Maldonado, with 51 (and -1 fWAR). Abreu played dismally the first half of the season, but has been much better recently. Maldonado, on the other hand, has been equally dismal and shown few signs of improvement. Writers at our sister site have some ideas about what to do about it.

Probable Pitchers

Updated Stuff+ Explainer

MLB: Houston Astros at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

RHP Ronel Blanco

40 22.2% 12.5% 17.5% 31.6% 4.73 6.32
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 39.4% 94.6 102 71 61 0.502
Changeup 7.8% 85.5 101
Slider 50.2% 88.0 92 129 90 0.264

Ronel Blanco has been pressed into service as an up-and-down starter with all the injuries in the Astros rotation. He made his major league debut last year as a 28-year-old, finally breaking through into the big leagues by simply spamming his hard slider. He throws it more than 50% of the time and he generates a fantastic whiff rate with it. Unfortunately, his fastball plays well below its velocity because he has trouble locating it well. Opposing batters have simply crushed his heater and that’s a big reason why he’s allowed 10 home runs in just 40 innings.

RHP Hunter Brown

91 27.5% 8.0% 17.3% 55.7% 3.76 3.44
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 42.9% 96.0 104 102 112 0.345
Splitter 3.30% 88.4 91
Curveball 27.1% 83.2 113 91 111 0.233
Slider 26.7% 91.9 105 60 114 0.346

From a previous series preview:

Hunter Brown’s development gave the Astros a convenient excuse to let Justin Verlander walk in free agency during the offseason. The 24-year-old made his debut last year, quickly jumping through Houston’s organization after being drafted in the fifth round in 2019. There have been plenty of comparisons made between the youngster and Verlander — Brown grew up outside Detroit and idolized Verlander as a kid. On the mound, the similarities continue; both rely on a hard, riding fastball located up in the zone accompanied by a pair of breaking balls that are used to generate weak contact and whiffs alike.

LHP Framber Valdez

105 26.3% 5.7% 11.3% 56.5% 2.49 2.87
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Sinker 49.3% 95.5 101 85 74 0.354
Cutter 16.1% 84.5 133 190 128 0.183
Changeup 10.4% 90.2 89 102 75 0.388
Curveball 24.0% 80.0 117 126 93 0.248

With Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander both out of the picture in Houston, Framber Valdez has ascended to the top of their rotation. He enjoyed a big breakout back in 2020 but he’s been even better this year as the Astros ace. He’s throwing all of his pitches with more velocity this year and the cutter he introduced into his repertoire last year has been even better this season. He’s racking up both strikeouts and groundballs and has a pretty good case to make as the best pitcher in the American League.

RHP Brandon Bielak

54 1/3 17.5% 9.4% 18.2% 50.9% 3.81 5.45
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+ xwOBA
Four-seam 26.0% 92.2 71 51 115 0.418
Sinker 24.2% 92.1 77 73 111 0.352
Changeup 26.3% 87.1 87 123 81 0.330
Curveball 9.7% 79.4 101
Slider 13.8% 82.0 97 106 45 0.511

To be a major leaguer is a marvelous accomplishment. To stay a big leaguer is an incredible challenge. Brandon Bielak is to be credited with having achieved both tasks, debuting during the COVID-shortened 2020 season and popping in on each subsequent Houston Astros campaign to hoover up the scraps of innings however they might come. That’s included spot starts, long relief, opening, and bullpen mop-up work. In 2023, however, the 27-year-old has been forced into more consistent rotation work as the Astros’ rotation has struggled with health and threadbare depth. His best career outing came last week against the Colorado Rockies in a 7.0 IP scoreless, two-hit display, but Seattle also cracked 10 hits in just 4.2 frames off Bielak earlier this year. Expect plenty of changeups, a couple frustrating double plays to strand baserunners, and hopefully enough big flies to make them not matter.

The Big Picture:

The AL West

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Rangers 51-36 0.586 -- W-L-L-W-L
Astros 49-38 0.563 2.0 L-W-W-W-W
Angels 45-44 0.506 7.0 L-W-L-L-L
Mariners 42-43 0.494 8.0 W-W-W-W-L
Athletics 25-63 0.284 26.5 W-W-L-W-W

The Wild Card Race

Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Team W-L W% Games Behind Recent Form
Orioles 50-35 0.588 +3.0 L-W-L-L-W
Astros 49-38 0.563 +1.0 L-W-W-W-W
Yankees 48-39 0.552 -- W-L-W-W-L
Blue Jays 46-40 0.535 1.5 W-L-L-L-W
Red Sox 44-43 0.506 4.0 W-W-W-L-W
Angels 45-44 0.506 4.0 L-W-L-L-L

Call me a raging optimist, but it feels good to see that the Mariners gained ground in the West this series. Playing in Houston gives them an even better opportunity to do so over the weekend. The Rangers have split the first two games of a three-game series against Boston this week, which they’ll follow with three in our nation’s capital against the Nationals. The Angels were swept by the Padres and play a quick two across town at the Dodgers before the All-Star Break. Oakland has won two and secured the win in their current series against Detroit, and finish off the first half with three in Boston.